restricted access Interrogating Escapism: Rethinking Kenneth Branagh’s Love’s Labour’s Lost
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Interrogating Escapism:
Rethinking Kenneth Branagh’s Love’s Labour’s Lost

In a departure from the widespread critical readings of Kenneth Branagh's cinematic adaptation of Love's Labour's Lost (2000) as a failed attempt to recreate the 1930s Hollywood film musical, this article takes a hermeneutic, rather than evaluative, approach in centralising the fragmented elements of pastiche which destabilise the film's readability as a unified text. Engaging with the manifold criticisms levelled against Branagh's fourth and arguably most radical Shakespearean adaptation, the argument emphasises the film's discontinuities and the often-questioned performance skills of its actors, positing these as strengths which respond directly to the metatheatricality and pastiche of Shakespeare's texts. Through a rejection of monologic readings of the film, the article instead places value on its apparent disjunctions, which create an interrogative text and invite the viewer to engage with the concept of escapism: a concept often obstructed by Branagh's knowing subversions of genre. By placing a play about a failed attempt at escapism in conversation with the Depression-era Hollywood film musical, one of the most escapist of film genres, Branagh's film, the article argues, opens itself up to interpretations of the film itself, Shakespeare's play, the musical genre, and spectator relationships to escapism.


Kenneth Branagh, Love's Labour's Lost, Hollywood musical, 1930s, Pastiche, Escapism, Non-integration, Shakespeare

As is well known in the field of Shakespearean adaptation studies, Kenneth Branagh’s Love’s Labour’s Lost was not generally well received by journalistic reviewers on its release in 2000, nor, until relatively recently, by academic critics.1 While academic writers have considered the film from a number of angles, common threads in approaches to the film have been negative assessments of the film’s use of the conventions of the Hollywood musical film of the 1930s, in particular musico-dramatic integration, and of the performance competence of the cast.2 Although the film is not without its faults, I suggest that much of the negative criticism of Love’s Labour’s Lost relates both to an assumption that the film is a more or less straightforward attempt to recreate the Hollywood film musical, and to a mode of reception that approaches the film as a consistently readable text—or that at least assumes that the film presents itself as such, even as it ultimately fails. In the first part of this article I argue instead that the film is more productively approached in terms of pasticcio and pastiche rather than recreation or revival; the manifold discontinuities of its pasticcio texture and its approach to musico-dramatic integration set it up as an interrogative text which draws viewers into conversation with it, rather than as a consistently readable text containing fixed and identifiable meanings.3 In the second part of the article, I suggest that one of the potential “conversations” the film invites is an interrogation of the concept of escapism, an aspect I explore through a hermeneutic approach to performance competence within the film. Approached in this way, the film’s negotiation of its discontinuities and the performance skills of its actors might be seen not as evidence of aesthetic failure but as an overlooked strength, responding to Shakespeare’s text on a number of levels and adding dramatic meaning and cohesiveness to the adaptation. [End Page 453]

Pastiche, Genre, Integration and the Interrogative Text

Love’s Labour’s Lost was Branagh’s fourth cinematic Shakespeare adaptation, following Henry V (1989), Much Ado About Nothing (1993), and Hamlet (1996). Although Much Ado About Nothing and Hamlet are both set in the nineteenth century, Branagh’s first three films were received as relatively straightforward adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays—indeed the publicity for Hamlet fetishised its use of the “full text.”4 By the time Love’s Labour’s Lost appeared, Branagh’s Shakespeare films carried with them expectations of high quality, accessible adaptations that were untroublingly “faithful” to their Shakespearean sources. Branagh’s overtly interventionist approach to Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost—not only setting the film in the build-up to World War Two but cutting around two-thirds...